You travel to un-learn
We used to eat McDonalds. Actually, scratch that, my parents used to think taking their kids to McD’s for their birthday party in England and inviting all the friends along and their parents was the cool thing to do. There are great homemade videos of me scarfing down birthday cake and bottles of Coke and Fanta, me with my face painted à la Ronald McDonald.
My parents have come pretty far from this. I have come pretty far from this cookie-monster child. I haven’t eaten McDonalds in ten years. It’s almost embarrassing to watch myself eat that kind of food on tape, given that I now delight in artistic preparation and am somewhat obsessed with vegetables, and a large reason for coming to South America was jungle fruit and superfoods.
Most of life – and travel – I think, isn’t so much about learning. It’s about un-learning.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is in un-learning the language of the jackal (head) to reconnect with the language of giraffe (heart) – the language of compassion, love and giving from the heart replacing the language of violence, judgment, shame, blame, guilt and fear.
Out beyond the ideas of good and bad and right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.
I try to meet everyone there, whenever and however possible. I try to push past the ego/superego talk and connect with the Being, past the voices of judgment, cynicism and fear so we can connect, human to human. I’ve even gone so far as to translate entire bodies of work which I had notes for floating around, such as Generation Waking Up, Non-Violent Communication, Theory U to French and Spanish – including hand-making 125 ‘feelings’ cards and 136 ‘needs’ cards in Spanish – when I’ve travelled abroad so as not to fall into the trap of the good/bad, right/wrong language because I simply lacked the heart-speak in that language. I looked through old NCEA vocabulary lists and noted a plethora of ‘adjectives’ to describe people – gordo, alegre, enfadado, mince, mechant and so on – and the vast majority were head-space judgments. Subtle, sometimes, but judgments nonetheless.
I can’t believe I didn’t notice this before.
I grew up in a very judgmental family. The judgments were often subtle but ran deep and so I had a lot of un-learning to do. Or perhaps we might call this learning from the emerging future rather than from past patterns – at a cultural level, I also feel the world would be a more wonderful place if we took a good, hard look at our education systems and un-learnt a fair few things there, as I wrote in last year’s UNESCO/APCEIU publication. Sudsbury Valley school never ceases to amaze me with its ‘let’s strip back the constructs we have around learning to the bare essentials and let children learn freely’ approach. Like Bernard de Koven – who I honest-to-God wish were my grandfather – SudsVal recognizes play is important.
I look back on all the things we consciously or sub-consciously ‘absorbed’ from our parents – the unexamined assumptions – and for some reason it’s both deeply saddening and somewhat amusing. Perhaps because I have a sense of detached freedom from these that I can re-visit them, and smile, as a parent might to a child that has some growing up to do. It’s true – my sister and I sometimes feel older than our parents.
So, what are some things I have been unlearning over the years and in this voyage?
“You’re selfish, you’re ungrateful, you live all in your head and have no heart, no empathy for other people. You’re very intelligent but have no people skills.”
My father is a great storyteller. When we were young, he would take turns spending ‘quality time’ with myself or my younger sister – two, three hours of papa-daughter time. And he would tell stories. He would make them up as he went along. He had great metaphors and motifs that ran through the stories. In all of them, there was a victim and a villain of some kind.
And we were always the villains. Whenever something went wrong at home – when ma was hurt, when we acted out – we learnt not to empathise with the person who felt hurt, but to self-deprecate, to self-blame, self-judge, to self-demonise. Only at the age of twenty did I realise I had grown up most of my life feeling like I was, fundamentally, a ‘bad’ person. Like there was some monster behind my eyes that people might see erupting, if only they looked hard enough and long enough. It was by no means the language of feelings / needs / requests but that of judgments / criticism / strategy / demands. Despite having delved into Krishnamurti at the age of sixteen, I never really shook off this sense of unworthiness that came with our supposed ‘heart-to-hearts.’ There was little way to learn and practice the language of the heart, because we were never really allowed to socialise – other unexamined assumptions being friends are ‘bad,’ friends are a ‘distraction,’ friends are unnecessary, friends lead you ‘astray,’ friends at this age take away studying time, and so on, largely due to their judgments around the culture and generation we were living in, which I talk about later in this piece.
This hurt in a deep sense, and it spilled over into other parts of my life outside home also. At school, I was never really seen as a ‘full’ human being – either as something lesser (perhaps the geeky academia has something to do with this) or as something so beyond human (for the sheer number of things I ended up getting my teeth into out of plain curiosity) so as not to be ‘human’ anymore. My French host family re-named me ET, for extraterrestrial. Alien.
The great irony now of the ‘selfish’ and ‘no heart’ part is that I now devote my life to creating transformative spaces for young people. To creating holy shit moments and aha moments and moments of sheer perceptual and emotional expansion, wow. Sometimes it’s almost spiritual. I’ve seen everything in my workshops – young indigenous ‘macho’ boys confessing about how their fathers or uncles were killed, high schoolers sitting in each other’s laps or arms rocking back and forth as they share If you really knew me you would know, youth singing, shouting, screaming and running out of the room, bursting into tears, embracing one another, staring for long periods into each others’ eyes – all unabashed, deep and raw expressions of our humanity. We go to fairly scary personal depths in these spaces – as a facilitator, your role isn’t to make people feel comfortable: it’s to make them feel comfortable with being uncomfortable – and for me there is just the most immense joy and gratitude that comes from witnessing and holding space for this level of planetary pain being expressed through personal story. It demands much of me, as far as emotional intelligence and sheer love are concerned, to hold these kinds of spaces safely, but it also fills me with so much hope for this world and this generation. Every time I return from a WakeUp half-dancing down the street and people ask but isn’t this generation apathetic, lethargic and un-caring? Aren’t they just selfish and disconnected? I want to shout no, no, no – they’ve just never been given a chance to express their humanity.
It’s also ironic because story is where we learn empathy, and my father – despite being a master storyteller – forbade us stories when we were younger. We read anyway. We read under covers, in torchlight, curled up in our wardrobes. We read walking to school, in the car, at lunchtimes. We read in the bathroom, with the shower running. We covered for each other. Stories, according to father, were seen as ‘bad,’ as ‘leading you astray,’ as ‘fanciful’ as ‘filling your head with useless ideas and stuff,’ as ‘filled with things you shouldn’t know about now (i.e. love),’ as ‘trashy.’ We ignored all of this and read anyway.
As I travel, especially doing things like volunteering, couchsurfing and hitchhiking, I am filled with an enormous sense of gratitude for the world, deep, loving connections that I never imagined and a sense of Being-ness re-affirmed. Outside of the confines of my parents’ home and of ‘Society-As-Usual,’ I can simply flow and be comfortable with not judging, not fearing. I just am becomes easier to believe and I am good/bad falls further away.
“It’s important to get ahead. You’ll save time that way. See how many classes you can skip year levels in – you won’t regret it.”
Time is a strange concept. We talk about ‘saving’ time or ‘wasting’ time or ‘killing’ time, as if time really exists, or if it does, then as if we have to ‘beat it’ somehow. Life as a child was always about ‘getting ahead’ – a kind of rat race in-bred from the years in India, I think, where getting to the top, getting into university early and so on was key.
So I jumped ship. I didn’t want to part of the me me me now now now paradigm, this overwhelming sense of rushing through life – rushing to get a job, then get married, then buy a house, have kids and die – because that didn’t feel like it would be a life. Travel slows time right down, because I spend months in each country. A long bus ride is anything over 20-hours – anything below that is perfectly fine; a stark contrast to my parents who choose flights just to save ‘a couple of hours’ or think that anything over five hours flying is excruciating. Travel teaches patience, because all the other constraints – of work, study, deadlines – are stripped away.
I look back on the life I ‘lived’ – now so far away – and wonder: what on earth was I doing charging through life as if it were running away from me?
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infinitesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.”
“Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world.”
— Alan Watts
It’s funny, because in a desperate bid to ‘save’ time, my parents would choose a plane over a bus ride any day. But having learnt an enormous amount of patience (or un-learnt rushing, as it were), I can’t possibly make the same choice anymore – owing also, partly, to years of having been a climate activist. Now, it’s all buses and sailboats from here. When people ask about my dream to sail back to New Zealand – but won’t that take so much TIME? like months and months? – I reply back, cheerfully, but that’s the adventure. Who doesn’t want to spend months swimming with dolphins, visiting Pacific Islands and the Galapagos, sitting under a sky full of stars, slashing open coconuts on foreign beaches, watching the effervescence in the water at night?
Time is also funny in how we associate growing older with something terrible, like ‘if you don’t do this [get this job, marry, have kids…] by a certain time, you’ll be too old for it, you’ll have ‘missed the boat.’’ I have a bizarre sense of relaxedness around my ‘time,’ to the point that when people ask me these days, I can’t even remember how old I am anymore. I just stare at them blankly. I have no idea how ‘old’ I am. What do you mean how ‘old’ am I? I want to say, don’t you mean how yold?
“One day you’ll grow up and be a doctor just like your father.”
This one came from my mother. My father, admittedly, never really wanted us to go down the medicine route, knowing what he knew about its lifestyle, it’s high-stress, little-sleep nature, the sheer amount of time required to get there – but even there, was the you need to get ahead in life unexamined assumption woven in. For Indian children, especially those living abroad, it’s almost a given that “You’re either a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, or you’re nothing.” There’s no real sense of judgment around this in our family now, though…most of the time. Unless mother is talking on the phone to relatives, then it’s all lamenting oh, they didn’t go into medicine, I just don’t know what do to with them or to friends, I just don’t understand what they do. We’re healers, mum. Just of a different kind.
“Black is bad, white is good.”
And hence: scrub your skin so it’ll look whiter. Use chickpea flour mixed with lemon juice and yoghurt to lighten your complexion. Don’t go out in the sun – you’ll look like the back of a saucepan, and by heavens, nobody will want to marry you then. Don’t play in the dirt – dirt is bad, dirt is filthy, dirt will give you diseases and make you miserable.
All from a (white) Indian mother from a rich family of Sikhs (all white also) who happened to marry a (dark-skinned) Indian man from one of the poorest states of India.
The black = bad, white = good archetypal symbolism is something I could harp on about for hours and hours. Another blog post, maybe. It just frustrates the hell out of me and makes it harder to empathise in any remote way possible with my mother and instead just leads to hiding things. I spend all summer outside – living in the Southern Alps chasing giant killer parrots around the mountains and forests, or perhaps on deserted islands studying grey faced petrels or permaculture farms – and don’t come home until autumn/winter, so she won’t have to face the deep, healthy and glowing brown I’m fiercely proud of and love. I don’t run around in the mud at home. I haven’t washed my hair in years, don’t even recall the last time I owned a hairbrush, and just don’t mention it when it comes up. The I eat clean, mum, so my hair cleans itself line will just not work.
“Don’t trust other people. Other people always let you down. Learn to do it yourself. Learn to be independent, self-reliant. Remember all the teams you’ve been in that failed, that didn’t pull their weight, where you ended up doing all the work? Remember that YES team? Remember that p3 team? If you don’t trust, you won’t get hurt. Don’t let people get too close. If you don’t let them get too close, you can’t get hurt.”
Yes, dad, and you also speak of us being emotionless, empathy-less, selfish, intellectual freaks, right? And we’re supposed to become more…human, loving, selfless by…not trusting people?
Travel – especially when you have very little with you – is about trust, more than anything. The number of times complete strangers have opened up their homes and lives to me. The number of times I’ve jumped into a car with a complete stranger, who never knew I was the most dangerous thing in the car – black belt and all. The number of times I’ve had to throw all caution to the winds, grit my teeth, trust and love. So many people are too scared to travel in South America, and the reason has nothing to with money and everything to do with trust. They don’t trust themselves. They don’t trust their inner knowing, ancient wisdom – they are too disconnected from it. They don’t trust other people in another country, another town, will be just like other people in their country, their town – human beings. There’s almost an odd sense of dehumanization that comes every time we say, ‘That place is dangerous.’ We aren’t just talking about the place, we’re talking about its people. But we say ‘place,’ to somehow remove the sting from it.
I would never have had half the magical experiences and intense friendships I have had here had I listened to this.
“Are you sure you want to do that? This (negative thing) might happen or that (negative thing) might happen.”
This is reason we don’t tell them half the things we are doing – they are living in fear rather than in love, living in judgment, which closes/contracts us rather than acceptance/flow and possibility which expands us. When we live in fear and rejection of the things we are trying to ‘avoid,’ we unwittingly ‘call them in’ to our lives. So I bought the plane ticket to South America…and then told my parents.
“Cover yourself up. Otherwise, you’re just asking for sex.”
And therefore, don’t wear a singlet, even around the house. God forbid those short shorts – learn to do gymnastics in leggings. Actually, don’t even wear shorts, even if you’re hiking. Only three-quarter leggings are okay. Don’t wear t-shirts with V-necks. Don’t wear sleeveless tops – those shoulders are too bare. Don’t you dare walk around the house like that, let alone the street. I don’t care if you’re hot – get used to it. Your dignity and decency is more important than your needs. I mean, what are you trying to prove by showing off your body anyway? The only people who do that are insecure, insecure about who they are and their talents and their worth, so they show off with the only thing they have to get some. And male lust is incontrollable.
To be fair, this one mostly came from dad. My mother didn’t particularly care, although if papa came home after a day of work and I was still lounging around outside in a sleeveless full-length top, my mother would make us hurry to put a cardigan on, a scarf, something. Somehow, I always had this sense that these kinds of comments were more or less entrenching machismo and seemed unfair, given the climate and kind of country we lived in. All little kids ran around in shorts and t-shirt (or sometimes not even that) in NZ.
And now, with a kind of joyful and ‘peaceful disobedience,’ Gandhi-style, I wear whatever the hell I want. Hiking boots. Bare feet. Six layers of clothing on a cold summer’s evening, with full woolly leggings, double socks and a neck-warmer. Or just a t-shirt and – yes – short shorts. I wear whatever I need to wear to feel unstoppable – that is to say, comfortable, alive, equipped – and I hike mountains in shorts and a sports bra, dig up weeds in a second hand giant shirt ripped halfway down the side and knotted up in the middle with my midriff catching the barest Amazonian breeze as I hack at bamboo plants with a machete in 36 degrees Celsius. I walked all around Peru for the first couple of months with bare legs unshaved, just to see what it felt like. I hate bras. A old woman in Arequipa sat down to chat with me in one of the colourful old colonial Spanish streets as I munched my way through vegan chocolate cake on afternoon, telling me about all the orphanages, zoos and other places that could potentially be wanting my help. But wear a skirt and heels, she said, and look presentable. Here, your presence counts for a lot.
Fuck heels and fuck skirts. My presence is great, thanks, whether I’m in a ballgown or splattered in mud. Confidence is independent of clothing. And yes – South America has a good deal of machismo – so I get honked at and whistled at and shouted at in broad daylight as I return home after a day of walking 12km, two hours of acrobatics and two hours of singing practice and four meetings. It used to be funny, and now frustrates me, but I walk with my head held high and fierce cant-touch-this kind of presence.
As Anna Binkovitz says, “Stop asking people’s clothing to have sex with you, and start asking people instead.”
“Gap years / traveling the world is for people who don’t know what they’re doing in life, or who have never travelled. They are just a waste of time because they won’t know what they’re doing after either – they go away, drink, party, sightsee, maybe have sex and come back no more enlightened than before.”
I don’t really think travel for me is about ‘finding’ myself or ‘losing’ myself. It’s about just being myself. And having all the other frustrating constraints – of work, society, study – taken away, taken beautifully away, so I can be who I really am. And sure, many people might travel or take gap years and not do so with deeper consciousness about their journey and their learning. But here’s the thing: we’re not most people. So that stereotype won’t work on us either, sorry.
Or stereotypes like, “drugs are dangerous” or “sex before marriage is wrong and dirty” or “hitchhiking is dangerous” or “don’t trust strangers especially if you’ve just met through internet” or “relationships when young (before uni ends) are a waste of time – they drain your life, your energy, your time, and are ultimately doomed to fail. You’re too immature at this age for relationships. The apple only falls from the tree when it is ripe. Relationships at this age always end in breakup. And then you feel sad. So to fill the void and the sadness, you get another one. And another one. And another. And it’s a vicious cycle.”
And the one that really clinches now as I volunteer throughout South America:
“Manual labour is for dumb people.”
Hence: go to university, get a degree, get a nice, clean office desk job, makes lots of money, don’t sweat (literally and figuratively), work just 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and be a respectable, intelligent, (marriage-worthy) human member of society.
Yet one of the big reasons for leaving the university-and-work-life behind in New Zealand for this way of life was this: I’d been living too much in my head, a lot in my heart, but not enough in my hands. I had a university degree in ecology and environmental economics but didn’t know how to grow tomatoes. I wanted to be outside, in the sunshine, building things, making things. I wanted to learn how to build an earth-house with my bare hands – so father could never again say, “Get a job to be able to buy a house,” since I’d be able to make one, much more ecologically and economically – and I wanted to learn how to do everything related to permaculture: putting solar panels on the roof, shaping swales, building composting toilets, harvesting and preserving organically grown food, learning how to set up a food forest. I wanted to complete the circle of knowing-being-feeling with doing.
There’s a huge general stigma around manual labour in the developed – and even developing – world. But this guy doing dirty jobs around the world really awakened something in me when I watched the TED Talk. Indeed, it seems deeply saddening to me that humans are so out of sync with the seasons, the earth and the cycles of life that we are becoming more and more inept at doing anything with our own hands and rely more and more on machinery for this. Of course, like the magic washing machine, it frees up a good deal of time for education and ‘high’-skilled jobs (read: staring at a computer screen all day), but it also means we lose touch with the sensory, the physical, the tangible, the natural, the wild, the sacred, the earth-bound and dirt-ridden. And that further feeds a self-perpetuating cycle of separation from and destruction of nature.
And anyway – I now find myself so happy even though I’m just brooming oodles of dust from a stone hut to paint it with linseed oil, doing the dishes, watering fifty odd trees in a garden, digging up weeds, tilling soil – simple things. But in some deep sense, my parents have this hang-up of ‘Oh, you’ve been recognized by the Queen for your volunteering and won highest awards for university; these jobs are ‘beneath’ you.’ But I like doing them. I like helping people in little ways. I like the joy it brings to their faces. I like getting my hands dirty and learning new practical skills – things I learn in front of a computer don’t really compare. I like the feeling of being able to step back after a day’s hard work to admire the garden I’ve just finished clipping herbs from, or the mountain of figs I’ve just finished prepping for jam for the farmer’s market on Saturday. I like the meditativeness of these things, how time slows right down and how I can just think. Or not think. And I find the farmer folk I’ve come across are so deeply, deeply intelligent – they’re quick-witted and wrestle daily with some of the most complex-systems in the world. They’re wise. I’ve talked to truck drivers for ten hours without stopping about global challenges and spirituality and been blown away by the depth of the conversations I’ve had. And – contrary to popular belief – many of them even enjoy their jobs, relish the space and silence it gives them to just be, connect, think, feel.
All of these unexamined assumptions / judgments come from an odd sense of ‘pride’ – in being a well-respected member of society (doctor / computer-based job), in looking good (white), in getting ahead (academically and in life), in having a ‘successful’ marriage (no relationship/sex before marriage), in being independent (don’t trust others), in having it all together (so no gap year, let alone travel)…but the other side of pride is shame. It’s fear, too, but ultimately shame.
Many of the concerns expressed seem to be about not getting hurt – such as ‘hitchhiking is dangerous’ or ‘traveling as a solo female is dangerous’ – which could be seen as fear. But given that so much of the fear is unfounded, it’s less about fear and more about shame: it’s more about what would the neighbours think (if they knew our daughter doesn’t have a ‘real job’ or hitchhikes or loves manual labour or doesn’t marry in her twenties or gets darker or sleeps outside)? What would the relatives think? What would the teachers say…if they knew the smartest kid in school was now doing…’nothing’? What will family friends think? Basically – our daughter will bring shame upon us and the family. And all these people will think: “We didn’t do our jobs properly; we weren’t ‘good’ parents.”
I had this realisation while in France, spending some time with my younger sister: our parents are and have been driven largely by shame. It feels strange to say this, since they might look upon every ‘judgment’ we’ve been un-learning above and say this: we are driven largely by love and we meant those things in your best interests, or so you would have a better life than we did or because we wanted you to be happy. But – as my spirit mother, Baksho says, ‘The opposite of love is not hate. It’s fear.” And, from NVC, we could add to that: shame, blame, guilt, ego.
It’s hard for me to write about judgment, especially judgment in our own family, and to do so with a sense of loving detachment. Because it isn’t about blame – it isn’t about oh, I turned out this way because this is what my parents/society/culture forced me to believe – because if it were, that would just be jackal to jackal, meeting judgment with judgment. I write about this now to simply speak my truth, to express what I have un-learnt and to give permission for others to do the same. As Joanna Macy writes on the Truth Mandala, a process I’ve now been blessed to run twice – once in New Zealand, once in Spanish in Bolivia –
Truth-telling is like oxygen: it enlivens us. Without it we grow confused and numb. It is also a homecoming, bringing us back to powerful connection and basic authority…Each symbolic object is like a coin with two sides; the courage to speak our fear, for example, is evidence of trust…The sorrow spoken over the dead leaves was in equal measure love. We only mourn what we deeply care for. “Blessed are they that mourn.” Blessed are those who weep for the desecration of life, because in them life still burns clear. And the anger we heard, what does it spring from but passion for justice? The empty bowl is to be honored, too. To be empty means there is space to be filled.
Estes, in Women Who Run With Wolves writes of the liberation and self-healing that comes from sharing secrets, especially shameful ones, through allowing the process of mourning or grieving that Macy and Rosenberg also speak of:
In the archetype of the secret, an enchantment of sorts is cast tike a black net across part of a woman’s psyche, and she is encouraged to believe that the secret must never be revealed, and further, she must believe that if she does reveal it all decent persons who come across her shall revile her in perpetuity. This additional threat, as well as the secret shame itself, causes a woman to carry not one burden but two.
While some secrets are strengthening—for instance, those used as part of a strategy in order to gain a competitive goal, or those happy ones kept just for the pleasure of savoring them—the secrets of shame are very different, as different as a beribboned medal versus a bloody knife. The latter must be brought up, witnessed by compassionate humans under generous conditions. When a woman keeps a shameful secret it is horrifying to see the enormous amounts of self-blame and self-torture she endures. All the blame and torture that were promised to descend upon the woman if she tells the secret does so anyway, even though she has told no one; it all attacks her from within.
Repressing secret material surrounded by shame, fear, anger, guilt, or humiliation effectively shuts down all other parts of the unconscious that are near the site of the secret. It is like shooting an anesthetic into, say, a person’s ankle in order to do a surgery. Much of the leg above and below the ankle is also affected by the anesthesia and no longer has feeling. This is how secret keeping works in the psyche. It is a constant IV drip of anesthetic that numbs far more than the area at issue….chronic grief, that shameful secret keeping, [eats] into the area of her psyche that governs relatedness. Most often we wound others where, or very close to where, we have been wounded ourselves…[One] can reveal her secret or secrets to one trustworthy human being, and recount them as many times as necessary. A wound is usually not disinfected once and then forgotten, but is tended to and washed several times while it heals…And it is a blessing if the listener is a person who can listen with a full heart and can wince, shiver, and feel a ray of pain cross his or her own heart and not collapse. Part of healing from a secret is to tell it so that others are moved by it. In this way a woman begins to recover from shame by receiving the succor and tending she missed during the original trauma.
Redemption heals a once-open wound. But there will be a scar nevertheless. With changes of weather the scar can and will ache again. That is the nature of a true grief. For years, classical psychology of all types erroneously thought that grief was a process that you did once, preferably over a year’s period of time, and then it was done with, and anyone who was unable or unwilling to complete this over the prescribed time period had something rather wrong with them. But we know now what humans have known instinctively for centuries: that certain hurts and harms and shames can never be done being grieved…When a secret is not told, grieving goes on anyway, and for life. The keeping of secrets interferes with the natural self-healing hygiene of psyche and spirit. This is one more reason to say our secrets. Telling and grieving resurrect us from the dead zone. They allow us to leave the death cult of secrets behind. We can grieve and grieve hard, and come out of it tear-stained, rather than shame-stained. We can come out deepened, fully acknowledged, and filled with new life.
So it’s less about judging judgments and more about – as the Generation Waking Up toolkit puts it – ‘hospicing dying world views and midwifing the new,’ or presencing to what is wanting to die and what is wanting to be born within us. This post has been, in many ways, about figurative death – death in a deep sense, death of world views, death of ways of seeing the world that no longer – or perhaps never – serve us, death of shame.
But there was another kind of death that awaited me in France.
On November Friday the 13th, 2015, I was supposed to have been in Paris, meeting my first-ever best friend who I hadn’t seen for 16 years, from England.
We could have been anywhere in the city that evening. We could have been rugged up in Sophie Ilbert Decaudevaine’s homely apartment in Villiers, playing a game of cards with Francis, her epileptic son of 19 years old, or perhaps trading singing exercises over hot cups of tea on the settee with the cat nosing between us.
We could have been taking a night stroll along suburbs we were both unfamiliar with, or perhaps traipsing along the side of the Seine watching the way the lamplights reflected into the water.
We could have been at a music concert – both pianists and singers – listening to something artistic, dark or absurd.
We could have been at a restaurant, celebrating our reunion – the last time we saw each other, after all, was when we were six-years old – over a small dinner.
We could have been anywhere, really, that there were shots fired and bombs exploded.
But we had changed plans last minute, just a few days prior. Rebecca Stephens came from London to Lyon on the morning of the 14th. I arrived from Montpellier the night of the 13th.
I could have been hitchhiking this evening – a three or four hour journey – but I changed my mind last minute, forking out 10 Euro for a cheap bus ticket and some wi fi.
With my skin colour, I might possibly not have ever been picked up from the side of the highway that evening. You know why they don’t give you lift, the Chilean truck driver told me as we worked our way 1000km up from La Serena to Antofagasta in July, it’s because you look like you are Colombian. Or Nicaraguan. Or Venezuelan. I had raised my eyebrows, asked, and so? He said, they’d have thought you were carrying drugs.
I hope the airport is still working, it’s so sad to hear what happened in Paris, Rebecca texted me on the night of the 13th as I arrived, exhausted, at the flat of a couple of Mexican boys who gave up their beds for me and insisted on sleeping in the armchairs. I opened Safari, confused.
And then, I realised.
And I hit shut down.
It doesn’t really sink in, at first.
Not while you’re waking up, shrugging on the black thermal leggings, tip-toeing over to the bathroom. Not while you go to the kitchen, fill up your drink bottle, pack maps, water, phone, extra clothes into the blue drawstring bag, fast. Not while you wander out, wait for what feels like forever at the bus station and file into the metro.
It hits when you see all the police everywhere in Lyon, the tourist info office shut down, or when you are stopped and searched on the highway. It hits when you see the thousands of candles and chalk drawings and messages of peace written on the sidewalks, the steps of the town squares, on balconies. It hits when you get looked at twice, three times at the metro stops thanks to your colour and when you realise that you are doing the same with everybody else.
It hits when you realise, it’s so fucking selfish, this fear, distrust, anxiousness.
It hits when you realise: I’ve only been thinking about me. How my plans will change because of this. How I won’t be able to see my sister as a result in the Netherlands if the border shuts down, and so how we might not meet for another year or two. Or if just I can leave, if just I can get back to South America, I can be happy, I can shut my brain down, I don’t have to think about this anymore.
It hits when you stop, suddenly, and feel ashamed.
There’s an odd sense of: “I’m supposed to be this heart person who connects rather than goes deaf and blind to the world; I’m supposed to be awake, kicking and conscious not selfishly falling asleep,” and there’s also a kind of powerlessness, a deep uncertainty I think that self-centered thinking comes from, like just not knowing exactly what is going on or why or how it happened or who is really behind it or what they want or their feelings and needs.
There’s an odd sense of cool detachment from it all.
Three days later, I stayed with a young multimedia actress, Salla Lintonen, from Finland in La Croix-Rousse. As soon as we arrived, she lit candles, placed them on the windowsill, and clasped her hands, saying, the world needs more love right now. It didn’t sink in. When Rebecca said, it’s really sad, it’s just really, really sad, what’s happened – it didn’t sink in then, either: scary, yes; crazy, yes, unexpected, yes; shocking, yes; uncertain, yes…but sad? I wasn’t quite there yet, then. Not even when we went to see people praying, lighting more candles on the steps of the Palace of Justice, not even when I read the messages written by children and drawings by old people. It was just this subtle disconnecting, this subtle Me and My needs.
I finally broke down in tears as I left Salla’s place on Wednesday morning, and she beamed at me with more love and kindness and generosity than I could fathom at that point.
I cried in the five-hour bus ride home to Paris. I would burst into tears at odd intervals throughout that week, and the week following. I had nightmares. At COY11, I was supposed to run a WakeUp but I cancelled it that day and burst into tears during a Brahma Kumari workshop on spiritual change in the youth climate conference later that afternoon. I was stopped by a couple of Dutch policemen who picked me in the train in Maastricht – undoubtedly because of my colour – demanded passport or photo ID, and all but spat in my face when I tried to explain, profusely, that it was at my friend’s house and that I was carrying giant pots of potatoes and cauliflower and other Indian dishes on my way to a vegan potluck and we were a bit late and the food was getting cold, and if they could please, please accept the electronic version and that no, I was not an illegal refugee. I felt like throwing up.
It was just this rushing sadness, an unstoppable opening inside myself. I was crying, and I didn’t know why I was crying. Nobody I knew personally was affected.
But it didn’t matter, somehow – it was the collective pain of the place, the collective grief that was passing through me. I didn’t generate it. I didn’t ask for it. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been directly affected by it. I simply opened up, and was like a channel for the pain of the world to pass through – and it overwhelmed me. I would shy away from using the metro in Paris, unable to deal with the sheer amount of collective anxiousness and fear I sensed there. I would avoid supermarkets and bus stops and large streets. They found a suicide belt on one of the metro lines I used to take to get to Gare du Nord, but I couldn’t find fear in this anymore, just sadness. I was in no place – spiritually, emotionally and mentally – to be holding space for people, especially young people, and especially a transformative process in which we work with our own pain for the world, so, when I entered the COY11 halls and saw the open-space design, lack of closed doors to create a container, soundscape booming with three stereo systems from different parts of the room, my energy dropped and I canned the event I’d come all the way from Bolivia to France to facilitate.
I realised, as I was travelling, that I devote my life to creating inclusive spaces for young people, to Non-Violent Communication, and travel, love different cultures and languages, and yet come from one of the most racist families imaginable.
There were a lot of judgments about the ‘other’ growing up:
“Oh those white people. You can’t trust them. They are so polite but never keep their word. They say please and thank you but are so two-faced, they will stab you from behind. They have a pretty face but don’t really care.”
“Oh those Maori. They are so lazy. They just want to take the government dole all the time.”
“Oh those black people. They are dangerous.”
“Friggin Chinese (Japani) people. MUREH naakh.” (Literally: bloody noses.)
“French people are so arrogant. The French are so rude. “
“Those Indian cousins of yours. They just have no life outside studies.”
And discrimination of other kinds too, like:
“Those fat people.”
“Those homeless people / people on the dole.”
“Those Muslims. They’re dangerous / mad / bad people. Never marry a Muslim.”
And so on. Well, it’s all rubbish. I’ve been hosted by fat people, I have been treated to gourmet meals by French people, I’ve had my butt saved in Lima by Japanese-Chinese people, I’ve been given rides hitchhiking 1000km through France by African people and white people, I’ve had best friends who were Maori or part Maori, I’ve Couchsurfed at the homes of young people of OUR generation who CHOSE to spend all their time in selfless service of their cities, sustainable development, climate change and other causes and yes, ended up on the ‘dole’ because of that and wouldn’t have it any other way. I have so many Muslim ‘sisters’ throughout my time – from Bangladeshi Nasreen to Saudi Arabian Mashael to Omani Intesar to Turkish Yasemin who was bawling her eyes out crying and saying “I love you” to me as I left the Ship for World with the NZ delegation earlier in January.
And the biggest thing I’ve learnt travelling is that none of those assumptions we have about other cultures are even the slightest bit true. Germans aren’t cold – I have more close-to-heart German friends than I can recall and we laugh together, we have sung together, cried together, done crazy things together. Sophie, Jana, Manu, Laura, Jennifer, Stefan…too many names to count.
So – obviously – there was a sense of deep hurt and injustice tied up with the perceptions people have of France. Having lived in Paris twice, I wondered if, perhaps, initially I was shutting down because I knew the alternative – being totally opened up and channeling the energies of this place, these people I’ve come to love, this country that has been so fucking kind and generous and beautiful towards me every time I’ve been here – the bread-sellers, the bus drivers, the passers-by on the street, the unemployed, the artists, the volunteers, the organic open air market, my hosts, everyone who’s picked me up hitchhiking…there was a sense injustice and hurt, yes, but it was not overwhelming; it was just…not ending.
There was some head language tied up in that also, the language of deserve or merit. As in – it anguished me that this country, that had been so loving and caring towards me every time I had been here, somehow didn’t deserve this, that I didn’t understand how such a thing could have happened.
The super-power cards from the Brahma Kumari workshop told me: you are looking for the power to withdraw.
The ones that resonated with me most were:
You are powerful. You step back from each situation, knowing that you are more powerful after a pause than before one.
You are powerful. There is a time to be connected to people and places and a time to remove yourself, physically from them, discreetly, never losing respect.
You are powerful. You return to your centre and see what matters to you right now then gently send energy forward in time to pave a path to peace.
And the others were:
You are powerful. With detachment and clarity, you go into silence, clear all emotion and desire from your heart, and hear what others have to say.
You are powerful. During quiet reflection on your personal values, you move to the heart of the matter and protect yourself from irrelevant influence.
“That’s nothing. That was just a few bombs,” Carmen, a Chinese Peruvian graphic designer and mother of three musical sons says to me over some hierba luisa and a bowl of white rice in San Borja, Lima.
I don’t know what to say to this.
“What…what do you mean?” I finally stammer.
“Those poor Europeans don’t know anything about terrorism. They have a couple of bombs and a night with guns and lose their marbles. It’s like World War III has arrived. We lived through over ten years of terrorism in Peru in the 80’s. You have no idea what that was like.”
She takes a bite, and shuffles the chair sideways. “It was the Shining Path, it was dark times. You would go out…and you would not know if you would return home. They would cut the lights, the electricity to random parts of the city so you’d be walking around in the dark, and you could be taken, shot, killed.
“So when you tell me about the attacks in Paris, I look at it, with a kind of puzzled curiosity, like wow, shit’s hitting the fan in Europe, but I don’t feel concerned. They’re learning now, what it felt like to be us. That’s good.”
There’s almost a sense of pride when she says this.
I almost spray her and the table with tea I splutter out.
All of a sudden, I’m furious. I’ve heard this before, I’ve heard this from Kooji’s sisters, who looked at me, completely blank-faced, as I confessed I’d been bursting at random intervals during the last few weeks of my journey in France, and said nonchalantly, that’s just a few bombs. I’ve heard it from a couple of French girls, too, now travelling South America saying, and what about the two million deaths in the Congo that go unnoticed while we make a big hoo-ha about Paris.
I stand up, grab the paper towels. “No,” I fire, “It’s not good. It’s terrible. Nobody – nobody should have to live through this.”
Carmen nods, detached. “But of course,” she says, agreeing.
She doesn’t understand.
“I mean – life matters, whether it’s one life or a million. Nobody should have to live through so much terrorism that they become desensitised to the pain of others, no matter what scale.”
“Yes, yes of course,” she says, completely unfeeling.
As I stand up to leave the room, I realise: I’m not asking Carmen to connect with the pain of Paris. I’m opening up to her, just to connect with my feelings and needs, my personal experience, and it hurts and shocks me that we cannot do that.
And I remember Estes: We most wound others where we ourselves have been wounded.